The Polish fight for abortion rights

This article is part of the NCAFC Women & Non-Binary zine being distributed at this week’s NUS Women’s Conference. You can find the whole zine here.

By Ana Oppenheim

coat-hangers abortion rights protestPoland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Ending a pregnancy is only allowed in cases when it resulted from rape or incest, when the mother’s life or health is at a serious risk, or when the foetus is deformed. And even in those exceptional cases, doctors can refuse to to perform a termination under conscience clause, meaning that some women (and other pregnant people) are denied access to legal, safe abortions even in the most desperate need.

This does not mean that abortions don’t take place. Those who are able to afford it often choose to have one abroad, the UK being one of the most popular destinations. In 2010, British tabloids were outraged over a poster designed by a feminist group, informing Polish women that they could get abortions on the NHS. How dare those bloody foreigners come over here, asking for an essential medical procedure? Those who can’t, resort to backstreet or self-induced abortions, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Ever since I can remember, abortion has been a subject of the most heated public debate. During religious ed at school, I remember learning that abortion is murder before I had much of an idea about human reproduction. I remember marches of opposing groups clashing with an almost seasonal regularity, and Serious, Important Men on TV calling women “witches” for demanding the right to choose. The voices least heard of the debate were of those directly affected.

Then the 2015 elections happened, and with them the ultra-conservative government of the Law and Justice party. Their victory further empowered anti-choice groups, including the conservative lawyers association Ordo Iuris who proposed a bill to outlaw abortion completely. The ruling party voted in favour and the bill kept progressing through Parliament. The prospect of it becoming law get terrifyingly real.

This provoked some of the biggest protests that Poland has seen in a generation. Women of all ages and backgrounds were out in the streets. Although some of the first protests were organised by the small socialist party Razem, it would be impossible name one group responsible for the mass mobilisation, and the movement attracted people of all and no political persuasion. Demonstrations took place in all major cities, as well as many European capitals, including London. Someone mentioned on Facebook the idea of a women’s strike, similar to the one that took place in 1975 in Iceland – and it caught on. Hundreds of thousands of women dressed in black in mourning of their reproductive rights, carrying coathangers to symbolise the horrific termination methods that many resort to, walked out of their classes and workplaces.

As a result, the government backed down, with a minister admitting that the protests ‘taught us humility’.

Never had the word “feminism” been said so openly in Poland. For a lot of women, this was their first experience of standing up for their rights. In many cases, demands went beyond opposing the bill and talked about free abortion on demand, sex education, access to contraception and more widely – the position of women in society. The long-term effects of this uprising are yet to be seen. Are we back to business as usual or are we now able to reclaim the debate and turn the tide?

Read the rest of the zine here